Zombies, somewhat aptly, have been around forever.
Tales of the undead returning to their pre-mortem upright state have been around since the Haitians birthed the idea from the island inhabitants’ vodou religious beliefs.
In cinema the zombies first arrived courtesy of a 1932 Bela Lugosi movie called White Zombie and the undead never looked back.
These days zombies are so prolific and so very postmodern that it came as no surprise in the recent ITV comedy Zomboat (yes, really, we’ll come back to it) that a character was immediately understood when she asked ‘fast or slow?’ It’s question number one when you realise the zombie apocalypse has arrived – are you dealing with the lumbering kind favoured by the purists or the supercharged ones we met in Danny Boyle’s 2002 28 Days Later.
The fact that some of you are shaking your head at my elementary mistake above (there are no zombies in 28 Days, they’re infected with the Rage virus) proves my point that zombies have gone seriously mainstream.
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The man to thank for the ubiquity of the undead is George A Romero, the godfather of the modern zombie movie who introduced us to the world of the undead in his 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead. It’s difficult to overstate the influence of the $100,000 movie that went on to make 250 times that budget on release. Without Romero’s groundbreaking film we wouldn’t have one of the most popular TV shows of modern times, The Walking Dead, nor the Nick Frost / Simon Pegg / Edgar Wright film Shaun of the Dead nor the Resident Evil series of computer games; the list goes on.
Nor would we have the latest intriguing theatrical project from Leeds-based theatre company Imitating the Dog.
The company, no strangers to making the cinematic theatrical, nor to big challenges, are taking on what looks to be one of the biggest challenges it has faced in the 20 years it has been making work: namely, recreating, live on stage, the first modern zombie movie.
Night of the Living Dead, shot and screened live, played out by actors on stage in front of you.
It’s a tricky one to explain and as I head into the Courtyard Theatre of Leeds Playhouse to watch a rehearsal, it’s immediately obvious why. It’s unlike anything you’re likely to have seen in a theatre space before.
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Andrew Quick, co-artistic director and founder of Imitating the Dog is sitting in the theatre seats happy to chat away about what’s happening on the stage: that’s because his co-artistic director Pete Brooks is in the driving seat for the scene that’s unfolding and Quick can watch his co-director get to grips with this technical challenge. Later in the cafe Brooks will admit that it’s a process that ‘messes with your head’.
From the seats I watch a screen above the stage playing the original Night of the Living Dead movie. On stage I watch three actors play out exactly what is happening on stage, mouthing the same dialogue, making the same movies, everything in sync – sometimes – with the Romero original. At the same time actors who are not needed in the scene are filming what’s happening on the stage and the live footage is being beamed on to another screen next to the one showing Romero’s original. Confused? How do you think the actors feel?
Quick is relentlessly positive.
“Come and see how we’re doing the exterior shots,” he says and takes me up to a bank of seats where the technical crew for this ambitious production sit.
Andrew Crofts has various models of cars and houses and a dolly for his camera so that when the Romero movie goes outside, so will the audience watching this show.
It is wildly ambitious and enormously demanding of each of the creatives involved. Ten minutes in rehearsals it does start to make sense, but the question has to be asked: why? As Quick and I step outside to the strains of Brooks shouting instructions to start the scene again, the question of why follows us.
“It’s a movie we’ve always been interested in, it has a great story and also has huge political resonances,” says Quick.
“It had a black actor playing the lead, it was commenting on the threat of nuclear war, it had something to say about the racial politics of the time; it’s a film that is about a lot more than just the dead coming back.”
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Imitating the Dog has always shown an interest in cinematic material; and it has always fused digital technology with theatre. This is the first time the company has tried to recreate a film, on stage, in its (almost) entirety, with every one of the 1000-plus different shots.
“It’s almost impossible to actually recreate the film because it’s littered with inconsistencies. The geography of the house doesn’t make any sense, the camera angles are often odd, there’s a real amateurism to a lot of it, but that makes it feel very raw and punk and that is what we want to recreate,” says Quick. “There is a really interesting relationship between cinema and theatre and I think in our attempt to bring the two together something really truthful will happen.”
Those are perhaps some lofty sounding ideals, but the truth is Imitating the Dog is probably the only company around that would have dared to take on such an ambitious, outlandish and odd project.
Not even the makers of Zomboat, where a group of survivors escape from the living dead on a barge, would have thought of doing this.
Night of the Living Dead – Remix: Leeds Playhouse, January 24 to February 15. Tickets and details via leedsplayhouse.org.uk or call the box office on 0113 2137700.